The Church and Usury: Error, Change or Development?

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Usury today is a dead issue and except by a plainly equivocal use of the term, or save in the mouths of a few inveterate haters of the present order, it is not likely to stir to life.1

Judge John Noonan is a Harvard educated lawyer, a former professor of the Notre Dame Law School, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals (Ninth Circuit), and a prominent lay Catholic intellectual with reputable knowledge in the areas of philosophy, history and law. In 1957 he published a book that is seen as the definitive history on a rather obscure and innocuous topic, The Scholastic Analysis of Usury. He then published another respected history in 1966 on a much more prominent and controversial subject, Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists.2

What do these two unrelated topics have in common? Almost nothing, until one reads his now-famous article also published in 1966, "Authority, Usury, and Contraception".3 This article sets the groundwork for two claims that will be made by numerous authors who follow Noonan's conclusions: first, the Church's teaching on usury changed with changing circumstances; second, we should expect its teaching on contraception to undergo a similar change. To be fair to Noonan's contributions, it must be recognized that this article was produced at a time when the question of the morality of new forms of contraception was still undecided by the Church.

Such a claim made by an eminent and respected Catholic (who was an observer and advisor at the Second Vatican Council) was not unnoticed by the theological community. Whether his intention or not, the topic of usury has since often been associated with attacks against the Church. As only one example, when Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae in 1968, reaffirming the Church's teaching on birth control, a group of over two hundred theologians, led by Charles Curran, published an article in the New York Times the very next day, rejecting the Papal teaching on contraception. The text of their argument included this claim:

The encyclical is not an infallible teaching. History shows that a number of statements of similar or even greater authoritative weight have subsequently been proven inadequate or even erroneous. Past authoritative statements on religious liberty, interest-taking, the right to silence, and the ends of marriage have all been corrected at a later date.4

More recently Judge Noonan has also written an article entitled "Development in Moral Doctrine" which he begins, "That the moral teachings of the Catholic Church have changed over time will, I suppose, be denied by almost no one today. To refresh memories and confirm the point, I will describe four large examples of such change in the areas of usury, marriage, slavery, and religious freedom, and then analyze how Catholic theology has dealt with them."5 A very familiar sounding argument, one we will need to examine more closely.

What do these authors mean when saying the Church teaching on usury changed? Due to modern English usage, the terminology used can present a difficulty to many readers if not properly clarified. The modern definition of usury is the taking of interest at a rate that is excessive, exorbitant, or illegal. This is a fairly recent definition brought into our common usage by economists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.6 The moral problem expressed by the modern idea of usury as excessive interest is not specifically addressed by this paper, but when it is mentioned, it will be properly called excessive interest.

The word usury in this paper is defined solely in its older, original sense, viz. any return taken on a loan which exceeds the original amount of the loan (principal). Used in this way, usury is very much equivalent to our modern usage of the word "interest". (The term "interest" is also a technical term which will be discussed in the third chapter.) Notice that the word usury does not specify if the amount taken was small or large, justified or excessive, legal or illegal. Usury was a charge for the use of money lent. As hard as it is for us to imagine, usury is "profit on a loan," and this is what was prohibited and condemned by the Church until the beginning of the nineteenth century. This is why so many say the teaching on usury has changed.

Unfortunately, many - even well educated - Catholics do not understand the problem of the usury prohibition, for they think the Church has always condemned usury in the modern usage of the word, excessive interest. This kind of thinking only confuses the argument by saying, "At one time, the Latin word usura was a word of broad meaning covering excessive interest or, in some cases, any interest at all."7 (Again, see chapter three for the correct etymology of the word usury.) This makes no distinction between the obvious difference in the Church's teaching then and now, a real difference that many will use to attack the Church, as seen in the next chapter.

1 John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 1; hereafter cited as Usury.

2 John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966). An enlarged 2nd edition was reprinted in 1986.

3 John T. Noonan, Jr., "Authority, Usury, and Contraception," Cross Currents (Winter 1966); hereafter cited as "Authority."

4 "Text of the Statement by Theologians," New York Times, 31 August 1968, 16; quoted by Ralph M. McInerny, What Went Wrong with Vatican II: The Catholic Crisis Explained (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press,1997); emphasis mine.

5 John T. Noonan, "Development in Moral Doctrine," Theological Studies 54 (December 1993), 662; hereafter cited as "Development." This article was based upon a September 29, 1990 lecture given at the Catholic University of America.

6 Thomas F. Divine, S.J., Interest: An Historical and Analytical Study in Economics and Modern Ethics (Milwaukee: The Marquette University Press,1959), 96; hereafter cited as Interest.

7 Rev. William G. Most, Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics (1998), Appendix 1; [ONLINE]. Available from [accessed 14 November 1998].

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